GUATEMALA CITY -- Guatemala on Thursday received the first families of migrants sent by the United States under an agreement to return non-Guatemalans who passed through that country on their way to the U.S. border.
The national migration agency confirmed the arrival of 14 people, seven from Honduras and seven from El Salvador and including children. The arrived on a plane along with 119 Guatemalans deported from El Paso, Texas.
The Central Americans joined 10 who had been sent to Guatemala under the safe third country agreement between Washington and Guatemala in recent weeks, though the previous arrivals had all been single adults.
Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart said the Hondurans and Salvadorans decided not to apply for asylum in Guatemala and accepted relocation to their home countries. Of the 24 who have arrived under the agreement just two have sought refuge in Guatemala, he confirmed.
Guatemala does not provide housing, work or other support to asylum-seekers, and applications can linger for months. It is left to non-governmental organizations to offer such assistance plus food, health care and transportation as best they can.
Under the agreement, the U.S. returns non-Guatemalan asylum-seekers who passed through the Central American nation on their way to the U.S. to seek protection there instead if they wish. It has struck similar agreements with Honduras and El Salvador but they haven’t taken effect.
Critics, including some within the Guatemalan government, have argued the country is ill-prepared to handle asylum-seekers.
Central Americans fleeing to the United States to escape poverty and violence tend to come as families, underscoring the importance of Thursday’s flight. U.S. arrests on the Mexican border reached a 12-year high of 851,508 in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, more than half of them people who came in families.
The Guatemala accord is expected to hit Hondurans and Salvadorans especially hard due to their large numbers and because their land routes to the U.S. border pass through Guatemala. Hondurans accounted for 29.8% of border arrests last year, while Salvadorans made up 10.5%.
U.S. administration officials have said anyone flown to Guatemala has no U.S. claim and is sent to apply for asylum there — not to wait out U.S.-based cases, unlike the more than 50,000 people who were sent back to Mexico to wait out their U.S. claims.
The arrivals Thursday coincided with the visit of acting U.S. Department of Homeland Security chief Chad Wolf, who met with security ministers from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Wolf characterized it as an important exchange on issues from border security and irregular migration to countering international criminal organizations that harm prosperity in the so-called Northern Triangle region.
"As a result of our administration’s many efforts including our regional partnerships with you," Wolf said, “illegally migrating to the United States has never been less likely to succeed.”
He also announced the signing of a Joint Security Program arrangement with El Salvador, saying it would secure Salvadoran aviation systems against passengers linked to terrorism, drugs, weapons or currency smuggling.
In response to questions about a video published by ProPublica showing a Guatemalan boy dying in U.S. custody in May, Wolf said the death was tragic and the case is under investigation.
Degenhart said one agreement reached in the meeting covered the creation of a regional unit specializing in criminal investigation focusing on financial crimes by transnational organizations dedicated to people smuggling. He added that Mexico, Costa and Panama will be invited to join.
AP writers Elliot Spagat in San Diego and Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.